By 4 pm it is dusk this time of year in Kosovo/a. It is Kosovo in Serbian and on the maps, but Kosova in the hearts of the Albanians, 90 % of the country’s inhabitants. The roads are full of white SUVs, Military vehicles, tons of European luxury cars, often without license plates (stolen), tiny farm tractors pulling wooden trailer beds, sometimes horses pulling. The driving is a little calmer than last year when there was no police force out, but there is still something of a destruction derby attitude dominating the local drivers’ actions. The UNMIK police, in their red and white SUVs are now setting up radar traps on the major roads and fining people 80DM (German Marks-the currency in use) for failing to wear seatbelts. They are cracking down on drivers without licenses. Vehicle owners are being forced to register their vehicles and somehow the UN is registering most of the stolen vehicles and giving them new license plates.
We enjoy good weather the entire time although winteresque temperatures start appearing late during our stay. Our apartement, rented from an Albanian woman, faces what is called the “Confidence Zone” in Mitrovica, a strip of land on the South side of the bridge with several highrises that are mostly full of United Nations and UNMIK offices. The bridge is heavily guarded with checkpoints and zig zag barricades. We show ID’s to the camouflaged flack-jacketed French Marines whenever we cross, first upon entering the confidence zone, then a more scrutinous check when one arrives at the bridge checkpoint. Strangely they want to see your Humanitarian agency ID badge more than a passport, yet all the humanitarian agencies laminate their own badges. So much for security. Our Clown badges have a PSF logo clown face instead of our photos, but only once during our stay does a soldier even notice that.
The first show that we play is in the House of Friends, right near the bridge in Mitrovica, run by a staff of 4 Albanians and funded by the AFSC. This is a gathering place for Albanian kids living in the North, a lot of whom live in 3 20-floor round high-rise apartement buildings just on the other side of the river. The kids are transported in KFOR armored bus to school at 7am and back home at 7pm. So they spend the time out of school at the house of friends.
The shows are a little rough theatrically speaking but the kids don’t notice and there is plenty of laughter and excitement. There have been several rehearsals at Tortell’s house near Barcelona a few weeks earlier. We have put together a Ukulele/ Saxaphone version of my ‘I’m Going Down the Road” song as well as an adapatation of the Colombiani’s Shakespeare routine. Tortell plays Mark Antonio and I play Julius Ceasar. My crown is a huge funnel, my cape a towel and my sceptre is a broom. It is a funny routine with Tortell spraying water in my face when I ask him how is the weather. It is raining, he says, ‘Shum shi’ in Albanian. We get volunteers to play the roles, and then we reverse roles and the whole thing ends up with us shooting spurts of water at each other.
Wednesday, Nov 8
Working with Julien from Enfants Du Monde, we travel to two collective centers, one in a Northern Serbian province:Leposavic, housing a group of Hashkali refugees; and one in the Albanian South: Plementina, where a a large group of Roma people live. We have been told how they are disliked by both sides. The Serbians consider the gypsies as second class citizens and the Albanians believe that they collaborated with the Serbs, and some did. In any case they are sequestered and living in refugee camp conditions. The first show we play in the local cultural center for both the Hashkali kids and the local schoolkids. Later after the show the Hashkali kids are the last to leave, only a small fraction of the 500 plus crowd and I go down and shake all their polite hands amongst earnest smiles.
We decide to eat lunch in Leposavic and tumble into the neverending country cafe wait that has us on the road at two for a three O’clock show with more than an hour’s drive ahead.
Plementina collective center, a real refugee camp right past the Norwegian KFOR headquarters, is on a small country road nearing Pristina. Just before the camp we pass a village of destroyed crumbling houses. These are where the people in the camps used to live. For some reason, mainly because they are gypsies, no one is rebuilding these structures. We arrive to an already assembled crowd waiting in a temporary schoolroom. Tortell has brought a Taraf de Haidooks (Romanian gypsy) CD, and rushes into the room where he puts the music on the CD player. They are all excited by the music. We get ready to do the show. We play this schoolroom, a darkened low ceilinged box. There are a good 250 kids and adults behind the schooldesks, a sea of faces glinting out of the dark. Electricity cuts are frequent in Kosovo and we play that show with the light of one outdoor halogen light powered by generator. We are very well received. The real show though took place in the tiny one-desk Enfants du Monde office that Tortell and I turn into a dressing room. Juggling prop preparation, costume changing and no electricity. Tortell has the miner’s lamp backpacker’s special, I’m using a taped mini-mag flashlight held in my mouth until the emergency fluorescent lamp thankfully shows up. Apart from a few tiny kids who get scared by Tortell’s makeup, the show is magical. A parent thanks me afterwards telling me that it is the first joyful activity to reach them in the 16 months that they had been there.
Thursday Nov 9 and Friday Nov 10
Working with Phillipe from Triangle Generation Humanitaire for two days. The first in the towns of Cabra and Skenderaj. This area is the birthplace of UCK movment and thus suffered greatly under Serbian repression. Indeed, the village of Cabra (pronounced Chabra) was not only burnt down but then bulldozed to the ground. There are no remnants or bare skeletons of former houses, everything has been leveled. We see maybe ten new houses in varying phases of construction, red brick and cement, two story houses eventually with tile roofs. All across Kosovo/a the landscape is full of houses in various stages of reconstruction.
This is the show we play in the lot inbetween the two temporary classrooms. We share the stage (actually a dirt lot where Tortell puts down a large circle of red and white striped tape on the ground to define the playing area) with a whole production of local talent and a local girl’s folkloric singing group; 20 girls in traditional white costumes with brocaded gold vests. The local schoolkids have learned songs. There is a dramatic performance involving five actors who thrust the microphone between them like relay runners with the baton.
The afternoon show in Skenderaj is in the cultural center theatre, one that holds 500 people. We play however to an overcapacity crowd, stacked and squished standing room both on the main floor and the balcony. The show is open to the public and has been well advertised. Like this morning, local kids will perform after our show. The stage is frenetically full of mostly jittery high school kids all preparing their cool moves for their big moment on the stage. There is a constant frenzy to the backstage that makes it more than difficult for us to concentrate getting ready for the show. It is a wild one as far as crowd energy, so many people and most of them teenagers. Tortell and I keep tight reins on the audience making sure that there is always enough momentum to keep the ship rolling. It is relatively smooth sailings and there are some incredible outbursts of laughter. Tortell does his flea jumping into the bag routine, a classic routine where audience members throw the flea to him on stage where he catches it in a plastic bag with a big snapping sound. He finds the flea on my head as I end my sponge ball and volunteer magic number. He keeps going into the audience with the flea than rushing up on stage to catch it. About the fourth time it does’nt make it and Tortell goes rushing into a hair inspecting lazzi searching for the flea. In Skenderaj they are just wild to want to throw the flea and when it gets lost and Tortell starts climbing over people in the audience it is that wonder roar of laughter lighting up the whole place. By the Shakespeare number though we can sense that hormone excessiveness reaching it’s capacity and we are quick through the routine and turn the stage over to the local kids. The traditional singing group from the morning are backstage too and adjust into a long wait stance as a lipsycnch number gets started. A big chance to express for the local teens and cheering friends..
The next day we switch sides to play in Serbian Zubin Potok, in a separate Northern Municipality, only ten minutes and a big fat roadblock from Cabra. We play in a well kept Cultural Center theatre. It took Phillipe over ten months to negotiate the use with the CC director. Phillipe has since made an unused part of the Cultural Center into an extremely popular youth center. This is the second event that he has organized there. We are honored by the presence of Rade Radovich who is one of Serbia’s most famous musicians, who has written many of the popular melodies and turns out to be a great accordion player. He has come back to his native town to help out as the music teacher. Tortell plays his Sopranino sax with Rave as I do a preshow butoh dance improvisation warm-up, a nice cultural injection into the theater. Tortell invites Rade to play music for us with the phrase “Please Maestro.” WE do both shows together and eat lunch along with the UN head of culture, Svetlana Pancheva, a warm Bulgarian woman who insists that if there is one thing that we must do before we leave Kosovo, we must see the nearby lake. We never get the chance.
Saturday Nov 11
Mette, from Danish refugee council takes us to perform at the school in Klina, near Pea, an Albanian area of great destruction and rebuilding. The town is full reconstruction projects, of KFOR and UNMIK vehicles and activity. We perform behind the school but as it is Saturday, school is not in session. Due to miscommunications and a lack of informed public, our afternoon show becomes more of an informal session on a small stage in front of the cultural center.
Sunday Nov 12
We receive a copy of the e-mail that the director of the Pristina theater sent to Leo. How the steps are blocked by the demonstrators and that our show on Sunday night will be canceled. Leo and Maria will be traveling from Pea to visit us anyway. Phillipe from Triangle that evening offers to take us to perform instead up at the Rom camp in Zitkovac, right next to the lead mines north of Mitrovica. We welcome the opportunity and are actually glad to be playing there instead of the theater. We play in a lot facing this huge white inflated WFP tent the size of a small airplane hangar. Woman with transparent jerrycans are constantly filling up water from a spigot and transporting it back over to the grouping of UNHCR winterized tents that were issued before the last winter.
We perform from for a very enthusiastic grouping of 70 or 80 with a graveyard of rusted buses as our backdrop. At 3pm the sun is already dipping behind the nearby mountain peaks and the air is turning frigid. Many kids are barefooted and few have warm clothes in evidence. There are signs of malnutrition in the kids skin and Maria says that she saw several infants with distended stomachs. After a great show we are surrounded by kids, grateful but all asking me for money, for marks. They have seen me throw a grouping of coins into a line and then snap them out of the air. They are 50 Escudo pieces, worthless here, but the kids are driven by need. We are told that the World food Program rations are far from enough to survive on. Everything that is given to them they sell on the open market for food.
These are the roughest conditions that we encounter. Tortell and I find it difficult to stomach and leave a little shell shocked and quite surprised. They live all of ten minutes away from the cafes of a well stocked humanitarian economy. The next days we are telling every humanitarian group that we encounter about their situation.
Monday/Tuesday Nov 13-14
WE are sunk into the demonstration quagmire that grinds our operation to a halt. It turns out that the Danish Red Cross’s security procedures are about the strictest in Kosovo and when we meet with our contact on Monday morning, it is only to hear that we cannot go to the two schools where we are to perform. The boss of our contact Sevin has ordered her right back to Pristina. They are concerned that the we will get stuck by demonstrations and that the vehicle will be unable to return to Pristina by their 5 pm curfew. We are dismayed, and take a very long walk through Mitrovica. We stop by Triangle to create alternative plans for tomorrow in case the demonstrations continue and the Danish Red Cross cancel again.
Indeed the Danish, although we only meet their Albanian representative Sevin, pull the same stunt the next morning travelling up to Mitrovica only to return immediately to Pristina. We are quite frustrated, especially since we hear from other sources that people were able to move around the day before and it was relatively easy to get around the demonstrations. We are caught in the bureaucratic web of the larger humanitarian circus. Luckily with Triangle and Phillipe we have set up an alternative plan to play at another Hashkali Collective Center in the North. We expect him at 1pm and spend the morning visiting several other Humanitarian organizations setting up contacts for a potential return expedition to Kosovo/a.
We spend a good part of the afternoon waiting for Phillipe, held up by police power play shenanigans in Zubin Potok (trying to recover an impounded truck that they had been using to transport heating wood on a Saturday, illegal on the weekends due to the proliferation of clandestine logging). He never shows up and we spend a good part of the afternoon simmering in our frustration.
The first day of our house arrest we watch the demonstrators move their site of protest to the bridge crossing. KFOR has beefed up the bridge and the 1000 strong crowd is met by crowd control fencing, a line of soldiers with guns, a second platoon of military with transparent riot shields, and then a solid line of tanks with platooned soldiers backing it all up. The confidence zone has become instantaneously fortified. There are scanning men in a command post on the top floor of the UNMIK highrise, and men with binoculars on the first floor balcony of the police station. Everyone is calm, both the military and the demonstrators. The crowd stands there for some fifteen minutes and then disperses headed back to the town’s main intersection where we had seen the burnt Russian vehicle the night before.
Wednesday Nov 15
Mette from DRC comes to take us to Pea where Maria and Leo are working, to perform our last two shows. It is uncertain if we will be able to play the afternoon show in a school as the 12-3 demonstrations will probably close down the school.
After two days of waiting, Tortell and I are a little skeptical about everything and do not really believe that we are doing a show until Tortell has marked out(with the red and white striped tape) the a part of the grass field that surrounds the center where all kinds of youth activities take place. Then upstairs in the poetry room that has become our dressing room, we laugh at the circumstances that have been surrounding our stay as we get ready.